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Dumbed-Down Dogma       

In recent discussions of the crisis in American education you must have come across the buzzword "dumbing down." I usually hate slangy neologisms like this one, but I cannot deny that in this case it makes the point. It refers to the tendency of educators and educational materials to accommodate themselves to the lowered levels of today's students. Dumbing down the curriculum so MTV-brainwashed vidiots can grasp it is an admission of defeat. It seems a foregone conclusion that the academic level of the students cannot be raised, so we will just have to start, and finish, where they are. Once in a faculty conference I commented on the danger of teaching over the student's heads.  Someone remarked that in an introductory course this shouldn't be a problem. I replied, "I don't know; there are some pretty low heads around here!" 

Of course once an educational system reaches this point, it enters upon a never-ending downward spiral.  A college degree comes to attest that its owner has but the equivalent of what used to be a high school education. Woe to the people who will one day be served ineptly by the graduate who does not know what he ought to know about his field -- or about anything else. 

Religious education, ever following in the train of its secular counterpart, seems to have embraced the insidious doctrine of dumbing down, too. Let me mention a few pronounced instances of this sorry trend.

Some months ago, I wrote you a tirade on the subject of "mega-churches." The rationale for the megachurch is growth for growth's sake at any and all costs. Let me now comment on one more aspect of that phenomenon. The megachurch growers not only want to offer every possible attraction to today's yuppie; they want to remove every possible turn-off as well. To this end, says Rev. H. Edwin Young, pastor of Houston's 12,000 member Second Baptist Church, they redesigned their church edifice to be one "that a totally godless, secular person can come to ... and not feel threatened." The result? As ­Wall Street Journal­ writer R. Gustav Niebuhr describes it, Second Baptist comprises "a 32-acre campus dominated by a complex of tan brick buildings that might be mistaken for a corporate headquarters. Inside a marble floor has a similarly secular feel. It is an airy atrium in the style of a John Portman hotel, complete with bubbling fountain, trees in planters," etc. In sum, "the church looks little like a traditional house of worship. That's a trademark characteristic of megachurches; they shun crosses and steeples that might scare people off." (­Wall Street Journal­, Monday, May 13, 1991) 

Similarly, there is a trend among these churches to dispense with the very word "church." Second Baptist of Houston actually publicizes itself as "The Fellowship of Excitement." Or take Jimmy Swaggart's church (­please­ take Jimmy Swaggart's church!). It's called "The Family Worship Center."

This is all of a piece with the fundamentalist tendency to dismiss and ignore all of Christian history between the first century and the twentieth. Once Reinhold Niebuhr (any relation to the reporter?) chided Billy Graham for setting back Christianity 100 years. Graham's response? "I'd like to set it back 2000 years!" Sounds good, with a sort of corn-fed wit, but this historical amnesia really denotes a fear of the past, lest it reveal the all-too-human roots of what the fundamentalist would like to think left the hand of God full-blown in its present form. 

Suppose one studied church history and discovered that the "Christ as personal savior; personal relationship with Jesus" form of piety is but dimly anticipated, if at all, in the New Testament, making its first appearance in the context of the 17th century German Pietist movement? Then, of course, the whole fundamentalist edifice would crumble. One would be forced to admit that one's form of faith was only one of many, and that to demand that people undertake a "personal relationship with Christ" to escape Hell is not one whit different from the extreme Pentecostal telling you that you must speak in tongues to be saved.

The great irony is that in this effort to wipe away any ecclesiastical associations from megachurch Christianity, the growth-gurus show themselves to be the worst theological modernists of all. They want to erase the history of the church and  simply start over! And those who buy this slick but deceptive advertisement may be surprised to find that these ultra-modern "worship-centers" are dispensing the crudest varieties of "that old-time religion." And what is it that turned their yuppie clients off from church in the first place? The wonderful ecclesiastical architecture? Or the repressive and narrow orthodoxy? They may be in for a nasty surprise. "Come into my parlor ..." 

For myself, I belong to and preach a religion that has a past, a gospel that has only deepened and grown more mature with the ages. Like the Catholic Modernist Loisy, I believe that the first-century gospel was just the acorn. What we have now is a mighty oak, and it is still growing. There is no point in trying to get back to the original acorn, and if there were, chopping down the oak is certainly not the way to do it! 

But it is by no means only conservatives who are oversimplifying, dumbing down as fast as they can, to cover a hidden agenda. Consider some of the liturgical changes being proposed in some more liberal quarters. One denomination is thinking of changing its prayerbook so that God will no longer be referred to as "King," but rather as "Enabler," and other such egalitarian substitutes. 

What is the need for this? We are told, somehow with a straight face, that Americans, not having a king, do not really know what king imagery means. If they don't why not tell them rather than accommodate their ignorance? Surely such a central biblical image is to be retained. But really the problem is that the liberal revisers know that people know ­too well­ what kingship means, and by forging a kind of liturgical-theological Newspeak, the liberals want to erase any monarchial notions from Christian theology.  In the name of "liberation" such clerics want to flatten out any language that might reinforce a concept of authority. If it is there, certain unscrupulous persons will appeal to it in order to legitimate their own supposed authority over others. 

If we speak of Christ the King, there remains the possibility of someone claiming to be the vicar of Christ on earth and so to wield his kingly power over the rest of us. I agree that that is a bad idea. I don't recognize any human authority over me when it comes to religion. But I do indeed recognize the ineffable majesty of the Holy! There can be no real worship if one does not! And I cannot help but suspect that this attempt to topple the divine crown is really the product of a hidden liberal agenda to eliminate any transcendent reference from religion at all, so as to make it into a completely this-worldly social-gospel endeavor, a mere political tool for "liberation" as defined by a certain elite. 

In the same way, I recently heard a minister read from some lectionary or Bible which had the reading "your Creator in heaven"  where the text of Matthew actually has "your Father in heaven." Why the change? Because if we allow Jesus to speak of God under a male metaphor, we are leaving room for men to claim divine authority to oppress women. All of this is a political censoring of the scripture. In all such proposals of Newspeak theology I wonder just who is being dumb. Should we dispense with the word "Spirit" and call that Entity "the Holy Wind" instead? Some say we should because people just don't understand the word "spirit" anymore. ("This multitude that knoweth not the law is accursed!" John 7:49).  But of course they do! This is just one more example of the condescension regularly practiced by the liberal clergy towards their actually quite intelligent flocks. 

And, again, who is being dumb here? Someone is being pretty dumb if they fail to realize the theological implications of substituting "Wind" for "Spirit." In one stroke the Newspeak liturgy demolishes the doctrine of the Trinity. "Wind" hardly allows for the doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit. We would no longer have a Third Person of the Trinity. I can respect the intentional and carefully argued anti-trinitarianism of Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and Unitarians, but what I cannot respect or countenance is the obliviousness with which some would discard the Trinity without even noticing. When "theologians" are capable of such things, it shows their minds are somewhere else than theology. 

A pet peeve of mine is the politically correct liturgy of the Inclusive Language Lectionary which refers to the Incarnate Jesus not as "son of God," but rather as "child of God." Do you see the problem here? "Child of God" christology partakes of the ancient Nestorian heresy. It is to deny that in Jesus Christ God has incarnated himself completely in a human being. How does it imply this? By excluding the maleness of Jesus from the incarnation. If the Incarnate Word is generally "child," but not specifically "son," then the Incarnation does not quite go all the way to the bottom of Jesus' humanity. Just as Nestorius could not brook the idea of God being a baby two or three months old, neither can modern feminists stomach the idea of God becoming a male with a penis. An incarnate redeemer who is of indeterminate sexual identity cannot redeem either male or female sexuality. As the Cappadocian Fathers argued, "What is not assumed is not redeemed." That is, if any part of human nature is not part of the incarnation of God then that part remains outside of the redemption wrought by the 90% incarnate savior. 

Again, if you feel that the ancient christological formulas are in need of revision or even of replacement because you discern serious inadequacies in them, be my guest! No orthodoxy is holy.  No creed is a sacred cow. But the glib substitution of "child of God" is another case of political correctness displacing theology. Those who propose such changes just seem heedless of what they are really doing and thereby betray the fact that they are simply impatient with theology as such: they want to get on to the only thing they think matters, namely politics. Count me out. 

I have, however, saved the most amazing example of "dumbing down" for last. This is the latest in a series of bad Bible translations foisted on the public by the American Bible Society. First they disgraced themselves by producing the terrible Good News Bible or Today's English Version or Good News for Modern Man. It was tailored for people with no more than an eighth-grade reading level. 

This Bible was really a thick evangelistic tract, as witness its wide distribution. The idea was that the literal text of the Bible was as much a hindrance to the conveying of the gospel message as a help, so the text was homogenized and simplified. At about the same time a different publisher unleashed the God-awful Living Bible, a paraphrase designed to make the text sound more evangelical theologically than the scriptural writers themselves. The banal and inerrancy-slanted New International Version appeared from the ABS (under its New York Bible Society imprint) in 1974. 

Underlying all these poor versions of the Bible was the presupposition that the Bible as a text was merely instrumental to get ting people to have a personal relationship with Christ. So the translators tinkered with the text to help it do what they deemed its job a bit better. A Bible was deemed to be good insofar as it led people to "get saved" or insofar as it served as a collection of clear prooftexts to back up fundamentalist doctrines. So it had to be dumbed down in those directions. If one were interested in the text for its own sake, one had to pass the dumb Bibles by and look for the Revised Standard, the Jerusalem, the New English, or the New American Standard Bibles. 

Now the ABS has spawned yet another bad Bible, the Contemporary English Version. This one was actually written up as a children's Bible. But they market-tested it on intellectually lazy adults. After reading a literal translation of Acts 20:32, some scratched their heads: "I don't understand the meaning of the word 'grace.'" "The expression 'word of his grace' is a complete mystery to me." "Then everyone admitted that 'grace' was used here in a manner inconsistent with its normal usage in everyday speech." 

The result? You might think the response would be a new resolve to improve religious education so people would understand the biblical idiom. But, gee, that might be hard to do, so what say let's eliminate the word "grace" from our translation! So here just over five hundred years after the birth of Martin Luther, Protestants have eliminated the word "grace" from the Bible! Now we read "care" or "kindness" instead! 

And again, who is dumber? How can the translators (if you can call them that) be oblivious to the wider theological implications of the word charis or grace, which certainly are lost in dumbed-down renderings like "kindness"? 

Theological modernism has always sought to update the formulation of the Christian faith in the light of modern thought and new knowledge. Tragically, today on every front we are seeing a new type of modernism practiced by conservative and liberal alike, which seeks to accommodate Christianity to today's lack of thought or knowledge.

Robert M. Price



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